Rising case numbers show that the government is failing to act decisively on the pandemic, argues Alex Snowdon
There is mounting speculation that new lockdown measures are on their way. In recent days there has been the reintroduction of significant restrictions in the north east, plus a strengthening of restrictions in parts of the north west. Other areas are now being discussed and there are media reports of a possible two-week national lockdown.
Let’s not forget why we are in such a fraught situation. It is because the government failed to suppress coronavirus to a low enough level earlier in the year, allowing it to continue circulating at a level which risked a serious resurgence.
Record of failure
There were two main elements to this failure. One was the premature relieving of lockdown restrictions. The other was the remarkable - and remarkably consistent – failure to increase testing capacity to ensure a systematic ‘test, trace, isolate’ regime.
They cannot claim they were not warned. Many of us on the left argued against early lifting of restrictions and the relentless push back to the workplaces. The National Education Union fought a major campaign against the unsafe reopening of schools. Scientific experts – including some on Sage, the official advisory board – issued strong warnings.
The same is true on testing. The WHO has had ‘test, trace, isolate’ as its dominant message for over six months. There has been the positive example of countries that took testing very seriously and consequently avoided major outbreaks. Yet our government seemed to think that lockdown alone would do the trick.
Transmission rates were falling for months – primarily the result of lockdown. But they began to rise again before the end of August. There is now a clear pattern of rising case numbers, with them almost doubling in the last week alone.
This is not the result of increased testing, as some suggest. The widening gap between supply and demand on testing suggests that the real figure for infections is probably much higher.
It is also terribly mistaken to downplay the level of hospital admissions and deaths. These are beginning to rise and – as the virus spreads outwards from younger age groups – will probably rise much further.
The government is desperate to avoid a proper national lockdown. Together with its inability to deliver genuinely mass testing, this leads it to fall back on three deeply flawed approaches.
The first is the supposedly local approach. In reality these ‘local’ measures cover very large populations. As infection numbers soar, the geographical areas covered will increase. This messy patchwork approach is an evasion of the need for nationwide measures.
The second problem is the hopelessly inadequate and punitive nature of the restrictions. Any sort of socialising, including with family members outside your own household, is forbidden, but everyone is still expected to go to work or school. If it is linked to someone making money, it is deemed OK.
Yet it is the massive return to schools and workplaces that is the single greatest driver of what looks like a second wave of the virus.
The final aspect of what might generously be called a government strategy is reliance on shielding the most clinically vulnerable people. This week it has been reported that this might extend to as many as 4.5 million people in plans being formulated. The idea is that some people (who are not ‘economically active’) are confined to their homes, with next to no social interaction, to allow everyone else to carry on going to work or school.
This is radically different from what happened earlier this year: relatively short-term shielding as part of a wider national lockdown strategy. It is punishing a section of society in a doomed bid to get the economy ‘back to normal’.
If infections continue to rise, we will need a serious national lockdown. It shouldn’t be necessary, but due to previous failures it looks like it will be.
Nor should this wait until late October when schools break for half-term holidays. If it is required earlier – and it may well be – it should be introduced earlier.
Five things definitely need to be done immediately though. One is the transformation of the testing and tracing system. It should be publicly run, fully integrated into the NHS, and involve routine testing in schools as well as among NHS staff. It must operate on a much bigger scale.
Secondly, we need to take a much more serious approach to schools as centres of community transmission. There should be a willingness to close schools when outbreaks occur, instead of merely sending home those in the same ‘bubble’.
Schools need government support in moving towards rota systems and online learning – including funding for extra staff, extra space and the technology pupils require to learn at home. It is also essential that school staff and parents alike are supported financially, receiving full sick pay in the event of either self-isolating or staying at home with children who are self-isolating.
Thirdly, let’s halt the mass return to university campuses. Online learning should be the norm until Christmas. Students are in the age group where infections levels are currently at their highest and the risks are too great.
Fourthly, the acutely irresponsible drive to get everyone back to the workplaces needs to be reversed. Anyone who can work from home should do so. Working hours for many other workers should be reduced, with no loss of pay.
Finally, replace the existing furlough with a new job guarantee scheme which extends until next year. It is absurd that furloughing is due to end at precisely the time – the end of October – being discussed as when we could be in national lockdown. People’s jobs must be secure.
We need to deal with the public health crisis first. Saving lives is the priority.
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Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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